Queer Reflections

One may as well begin with the moment I sob on a stranger’s shoulder. It happens well into the second half of a two-part, seven-hour gay epic on Broadway. 24 hours earlier, I hop on the bus from Boston to New York, overworked and brokenhearted. Going off of the faint memory of a New Yorker piece I read about it, I Google The Inheritance. On the website of the British Telegraph, I find a review that promises “a state of emotionally shattered but elated awe” and defines the show as “perhaps the most important American play of the century.” This description seals the deal; I book my ticket before the bus leaves South Station. So, in retrospect, I have no right to complain—a stream of tears is exactly what I signed up for when I paid eighty dollars I didn’t have to witness gay men fall in love and break each other’s hearts for seven hours.

Written by American playwright Matthew Lopez, The Inheritance operates on a simple premise: a reimagining of E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End, it follows a group of gay men in modern-day New York, two decades after the height of the AIDS epidemic. At the heart of the play are Eric Glass, a thirty-something activist and his partner, novelist-turned-playwright Toby Darling. The two live in a rent-controlled apartment that Eric inherited from his grandmother, a holocaust survivor who fled Germany. A few hours before he and Toby get engaged, Eric is notified of their imminent eviction, which threatens to disturb the peace of their Upper West Side domestic paradise. While Toby leaves town for work and falls for Adam, the leading actor in his play, Eric befriends Walter, their older upstairs neighbor, who tells him about his life as a gay man in the ‘80s.

The Inheritance opened in March 2018 at the Young Vic Theatre in London. The reviews were ecstatic; within six months, the play transferred to the West End and went on to win four Olivier Awards, including Best New Play and Best Director (Stephen Daldry, the man in charge of hits like Billy Eliot—the film and the musical—and The Crown on Netflix). Last November, it opened on Broadway, making its long-awaited journey across the Atlantic.

As I am walking to the subway after the show, still wiping my tears, I see the play’s bright future as clearly as I see the enormous ad for Buffalo Wild Wings right in front of me: rapturous reviews, a two-year run, a few Tony Awards, perhaps even a TV adaptation starring Andrew Garfield.

But that is not quite how the following months unfold. American critics turn out to be much more ambivalent than their British counterparts. The New York Times says that the play’s breadth “doesn’t always translate into depth”; The New Yorker calls it “audacious and highly entertaining, if not entirely successful”; and Time Out observes that “a certain amount of imperfection is built into ambition on this scale.” The friends I send to watch the play, using my rare must-see command, eventually report back, describing a fair amount of empty seats, that only grows post-intermission. I start asking myself what I saw in The Inheritance that others didn’t see. And then I realize: it was my own reflection, bright and shining.

***

What does it mean, to see oneself on stage? This is a question our culture has been grappling with since the early days of theater. Aristotle, for example, would probably categorize my Inheritance experience as cathartic. In Poetics, he used the term to respond to his teacher Plato, who argued that poetic drama is detrimental because it creates anarchy within our soul by stirring up our passions and impairing our reason. Aristotle, on the other hand, insisted that good drama doesn’t create anarchy, but prevents it, by providing a regulated outlet for our feelings. A well-executed tragedy, Aristotle believed, arouses “pity and fear” in us to the point of their “catharsis,” a medical metaphor which literally means purification, or relief. Then, more than two thousand years later, German playwright Bertolt Brecht challenged Aristotle’s theory, which by then had pretty much become the foundation of Western theater as we know it. Brecht thought catharsis was “a pap for bourgeois audiences”; he argued that its byproducts (empathy, sympathy, identification) prevent us from thinking about the action rationally. Instead, Brecht advocated for theater that pushes us to adopt a critical approach, by using techniques like alienation and distance.

Lopez is an outstanding writer; his characters are sharp and witty, ruthless and humane, compelling and infuriating. I fell in love with Eric, even when he sounded like an Intro to Queer Studies textbook. I admired Walter for his heroic treatment of his HIV-positive friends at a time when they were dehumanized by virtually everyone—from President Reagan to Henry Wilcox, Walter’s own partner. I was even able to find compassion for Toby, who shattered my heart when, in response to Eric’s claim that “There’s more to people than beauty,” he said, “You would have to tell yourself that, wouldn’t you?”

But Brecht definitely had a point. I saw myself on stage so vividly, with overwhelming clarity, that I wasn’t able to consider the things I didn’t see.

Only a few weeks later, in the aftermath of an exhausting verbal sparring with grad students at a party, am I able to do a double take. At first, I defend the play with the vehemence of Joan of Arc, leading a fearless campaign against the English (in this case, gay English Ph.D. candidates who dismiss The Inheritance as conservative, burgeois, and even homophobic). But on my way back home, confused and slightly drunk, I decide to lay my arms down and consider my enemy’s position. I think about the play’s relegation of characters of color to the outskirts of its plot; its heavy reliance on Toby and Leo, a homeless sex worker, as the sole representatives of the working class; and its almost complete exclusion of female-identified and trans characters (with the exception of Margaret, a repented homophobic mother of an AIDS victim, extraordinarily portrayed by Lois Smith, an acting legend).

My confusion persists, slowly morphing into a thick, gray cloud of ambivalence, until, a few weeks later, I get an opportunity to talk to Lopez, the playwright. During a phone interview, I ask him if he considered including non-cisgender characters in his gay epic. “I did, and I’ve certainly written women before in other plays,” Lopez says. “Then I decided that I was not attempting to write a play that tells the story of all the letters of the LGBTQIA alphabet or all the colors of the rainbow flag. I was going to talk about what it meant to me to be a gay man. This was always a very, very personal play for me. And I have no experience of what it’s like to be trans or a gay woman, which doesn’t mean that I won’t write these roles in the future. We do not deny our trans siblings in the play, but it’s not my story.”

I try to reconcile Lopez’s response with the fact that The Inheritance has been widely perceived as the ultimate queer, post-AIDS crisis saga, which supposedly sets out to speak for a large community. “I don’t believe that investigation into one’s own experience and the community that one most identifies with is necessarily to the exclusion of all else,” Lopez explains. “Just like I had no real connection to Howard’s End when I was a Puerto Rican teenage kid growing up, watching the movie and reading the book, I would hope that others could find commonality in the experiences of the heart and the soul that I examine in the play. I can’t explain myself to the world as anyone else except for who I am and the life I’ve lived.”

Lopez insists that a single work of art can’t be expected to do everything. “I think that’s a burden to place on a piece of art that is not achievable. Or, I’ll just say, it wasn’t my goal,” he says. “But I don’t think that that’s necessarily exclusionary. I can’t wait to see the seven-hour trans epic, but I can’t be the one to write it.”

What about casting? I ask him, mentioning the charge that while the play provides perhaps the most comprehensive portrayal of queer life on Broadway today, some of its main cast members are heterosexual. “When I’m casting a play, all I’m thinking when an actor walks into the room is, ‘Are you my character? Do you have the heart and the soul? Do you have the facility with language that I require?’” Lopez tells me. “When we were casting the play, especially the roles of Toby and Adam/Leo, we were spending a lot of time trying very desperately to find actors of color. That was the primary concern. It didn’t happen, despite our efforts. In fact, we didn’t make the offers to Andrew and Sam, the actors who play these roles, until just a few weeks before production started in London, even though they lived in the United States. So my focus was really making sure that the leads look like the community.”

While he regrets not having cast actors of color to play any of the main characters, Lopez is also grateful to the cast members “for their beautiful performances, the sacrifices they had to make, and their commitment to the project.” For him, an actor’s sexual orientation is simply not part of the equation. “When they walk into the room to audition, my first thought is not, ‘Are you gay? Straight? Bi?’ It’s not a consideration for me, and I know that some people insist that it has to be.”

At this point, Lopez refers to employment discrimination laws, which prohibit employers from asking potential employees questions about their sexual identity. “I think it’s a weird place we’re in, where more people are insisting on demolishing the binary of sexual identity, on embracing the fluidity of sexual expression, but when it comes to casting actors in a play they still insist on the same binary,” he says. “I can’t speak to the private lives of the actors, but my question is, how many sexual encounters in their lives will they have to have had in order to qualify for these roles? Is there a number? It feels somewhat regressive suddenly to say, ‘Well, just because you have a girlfriend now you don’t have a multiplicity of sexual expressions in your psyche.’ It’s a question that I simply, literally, legally cannot ask, and it defies everything we know about the art of acting.”

***

A few weeks after watching The Inheritance, I find out that Machine, the only gay bar I know in Boston, is closing. I’m immediately reminded of one scene in the play, in which Eric’s thirty-fourth birthday party turns into a heated debate regarding the future of the queer community. “Gay bars used to be safe spaces for people like us to be ourselves and to find others like us,” Eric declares in an impassioned monologue. “Now everyone just goes onto Grindr. But what about a twenty-year-old kid who’s not looking for sex, but rather for community?”

When I tell Lopez about Machine, he laughs. “It’s a fascinating evolution that we’re seeing,” he says. “I guess that enough gay men feel comfortable enough in the world that they don’t necessarily need to congregate at gay bars. But the truth is that this is still not a safe space for so many in our community, certainly not for trans women and lesbians. In many areas of the country, gay men are still not safe either. So while gay bars may be closing in big cities, there still is a need for these spaces. And I wonder what these spaces will be.”

Lopez, it seems, is somewhat optimistic. “I think we have a particular resilience,” he explains. “TV shows like Pose demonstrate the ability of the queer community to create spaces for itself. We have to. The only fear I have, well, not the only one, but one of them today is… It would be a shame if these spaces are all online and everyone is in their individual homes and apartments. Social media can never be a replacement for actual community. It’s an approximation of it, but it isn’t the real thing,” he says. “And that’s something to which I don’t have an answer.”

Did he feel a difference between the reactions of the audience in London and here? “Instantly,” he says. “New York loves to look in the mirror and I don’t think that’s a failing. I think it’s a perfect explanation of what it means to be a New Yorker. There’s great joy in the theater when locations are mentioned. New Yorkers love to talk about rent and real estate and that always gets a good response. And I think there’s something even deeper for New Yorkers because it deals with events that occur here. The AIDS epidemic affected London just as badly, but to see the play here and be reminded of those events as they happened to New Yorkers makes the experience more personal.”

Before we hang up the call, I wonder if Lopez has considered turning the play into a TV show (last month, Playball called The Inheritance “The Greatest Netflix Binge on Broadway”). “Of course,” he laughs. “That wasn’t something I was thinking about when I was writing the play, not in the least. But as I was structuring it, I did realize that I was actually writing two three-act plays, which then meant that no act would be longer than an hour—the average length of an episode of television. Once we started to perform in London we realized, ‘Oh, each act is like an episode of a Netflix show.’ It was not the intention, but it was the result, and it was what audiences began to like in the play too. And then, as we continued to craft the show, we decided to really lean into it. We thought of that as an asset. Once we realized that was how people were accessing the play, we made sure that we really allowed them to have that experience. I think that it is incumbent upon any art form to not deny the age in which it is being shown. We live in the age of Netflix and binge-watching. And it’s enjoyable,” he adds. “But even in a six-and-a-half-hour long play, there are so many darlings that you have to drown. There’s a lot of the story that didn’t make it into the play. And maybe I will tell it someday, hopefully.”

***

Like any ambitious work of art, The Inheritance is imperfect. Yes, some of the political debates it stages can feel awkward or expository. Yes, it might not be as sophisticated as another great gay epic, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America—a common criticism whose prescriptiveness reminds me of my mom’s pleas that I be more like my brother (not every gay epic has to be intellectualy demanding, just like not every member of my family has to be in Boy Scouts and play soccer. And, while the two plays do share many features—being New York-centered, long, and queer—they are completely different projects, created in two distinct historical moments, a fact that makes the relationship between them resemble more that of a grandfather and grandchild, or of distant cousins who see each other rarely, at funerals and weddings). And no, the cast members don’t wear shoes on stage, a fact that, for some reason, seems to have stirred some critics much more than the play’s engagement with themes like sex work, drug addiction, and intergenerational trauma.

I’ve recently heard that if ticket sales don’t improve, the curtain might come down on The Inheritance sometime in the next few months. If this is true, I think it is a grim prospect. Not because the play’s queerness makes it untouchable. I can’t help but feel like the standards to which we hold Lopez accountable are virtually impossible. His play should be criticized for its flaws, but not entirely dismissed.

Albeit partially and imperfectly, The Inheritance features some fascinating characters, like Tristan, an African-American, H.I.V.-positive doctor, who compares Donald Trump to AIDS in a brilliant moment of political commentary. It contains some of the most original depictions of gay sex I’ve ever seen (which, quite predictably, have already provoked some homophobic reactions, like that of the New York Post critic Johnny Oleksinski, who complained that “the abundance of graphic sex-talk can grow cloying”). And, most importantly, it tries to push the boundaries of the theatrical experience, and it does so on West 47th street, two blocks away from The Tina Turner Musical.

Unsurprisingly, some of the play’s loudest critics have been members of the queer community. Last month, the producers of Slate’s queer podcast, Outward, assembled four gay men of different ages to discuss the show. “So many people were seeing the play that they wanted to see, not the play that was actually being enacted on stage,” one of the commentators argued. “To me, that was half the tears of older theatergoers and younger ones. They needed this play to be there, so therefore they made it what it was and brought their own needs to it in a way that was separate from the agenda of the play and the enactment of it as well. And I respected that and felt sad in some ways that something like this was filled with so much evanescent sentiment when we deserve a story that has more power and complexity to it.”

Was I seeing The Inheritance or the play I wanted it to be? Did I just need it to exist? Do we deserve a different story? These, I think, are all questions worth considering, ones to which I don’t have clear-cut answers. All I know is that I spend my last hours in New York running through the streets in the pouring rain, desperately looking for a copy of the play. Over the past few weeks, I’ve read and reread it, trying to figure out why it strikes a chord within my soul so powerfully.

As I board the bus back home from New York, a friend sends me an essay by James Baldwin, a major link in the chain of queer artists that The Inheritance charts and perhaps the person whose thoughts about this play I would have been most interested in hearing. Published in 1964, the essay is titled “Nothing Personal.”

“When a civilization treats its poets with the disdain with which we treat ours, it cannot be far from disaster; it cannot be far from the slaughter of the innocents,” Baldwin writes. “Everyone is rushing, God knows where, and everyone is looking for God knows what—but it is clear that no one is happy here, and that something has been lost. Only, sometimes, uptown, along the river, perhaps… yes, there was something recognizable, something to which the soul responded, something to make one smile, even to make one weep with exultation.”

I am profoundly moved by Baldwin’s words, which I struggle to decipher on the broken screen of my iPhone. There are no shoulders to sob on, so I stare into space silently. I lean my head against the window. I think how wonderful it is that we were made to connect, to be moved, to feel.